San Pancrazio is a 7th century minor basilica and parish and titular church, just west of Trastevere at Piazza San Pancrazio 5/D. This is in the Gianicolense quarter. The church itself is up a driveway from the road, and is surrounded by the park of the Villa Doria Pamphilj. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The basilica is on the site of the tomb of St Pancras, a 4th century martyr, in the Calepodian cemetery. This was on the ancient Via Vitellia, an offshoot of the Via Aurelia Antica which runs from the present Porta San Pancrazio.
The first Christian structure here was apparently an oratory. The cemetery around the saint's tomb grew into a famous catacomb, and so (according to the Liber Pontificalis) Pope St Symmachus (498-514) built a basilica on the site of the oratory. He also had a hospice for pilgrims built adjacent to it.
By tradition, Pope Gregory the Great converted the establishment into a monastery and staffed it with Benedictine monks exiled from Montecassino -but this story is nowadays regarded as unhistorical. It seems rather that there was another monastery in the late 6th century dedicated to St Pancras next to the Lateran. This former convent at the Lateran might have derived its dedication from the tradition that the saint had lived nearby, on the Caelian.
Pope Honorius I (625-638) rebuilt the basilica, and placed the relics of the martyr in a crypt. So, the actual dedication to St Pancras here is thought to date from this time. (The monastic foundation here was initially dedicated to St Victor. What the dedication was of the church built by Pope Symmachus is unknown.)
7th century basilicaEdit
The present basilica is basically this rebuilding by Honorius, with some changes made in the 12th century. It is no longer thought that any earlier fabric survives in the extant edifice.
In 1061 is the first reference to a Benedictine monastery here, under the authority of the great French abbey of Cluny. This institution lasted until 1257, when the Benedictines abandoned the complex to the Cistercians in obscure circumstances. The observance in Benedictine monasteries at Rome had fell into disgraceful corruption in the early 13th century, and the order lost them all as a result -except for San Paolo fuori le Mura.
The Cistercian monastery in its turn fell into serious decay, and was suppressed in 1517 when the church was made titular.
In 1606 a major restoration was finally undertaken of the partly ruined church, with early Baroque details to the interior and the present façade added. In 1662 it was entrusted to the Discalced Carmelites, who are still in charge of the parish.
The 19th century was not kind to the church. It was thoroughly looted by the French in 1798, and was partially destroyed by the Garibaldians during their futile defence of the Roman Republic against the French army in 1849. This vandalism included having the shrine broken open and the relics of the martyr disposed of. Whatever the vandals did with them, whether they put them down the toilet or shot them from a cannon, it is the case that not a fragment was recovered. Hence, when substantial necessary repairs were carried out to the church in the later 19th century, a small relic was brought back from the head of the saint at St John Lateran to be enshrined.
The church was made parochial in 1931.
St Pancras in EnglandEdit
The story of Benedictine monks being here had an odd outcome. One of the parish churches in the suburbs of London, now called Old St Pancras, took the dedication when it was founded perhaps in the 10th century. This related to the mission to England sent by Pope Gregory, under the authority of St Augustine of Canterbury. One of the first churches built by the mission at Canterbury was dedicated to the saint.
The church passed the name on to a train station built next to it in the 19th century. This is now St Pancras International, and if you take a train from the European mainland to London this is where you will arrive.
The great French Benedictine abbey of Cluny expanded its reform congregation into England after that country was conquered by the Normans in 1066, and the first great monastery that it built was at Lewes in Sussex. It was dedicated to St Pancras because of the tradition that Benedictines had been at the basilica in the reign of Pope Gregory the Great. The priory church was the largest church in Sussex.
The first cardinal priest was Ferdinando Ponzetti, appointed in 1517.
The present titular is Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera.
GatewayEditThe church is approached through a 17th century Baroque gateway, over which is a faded fresco of the Crucifixion in an arched canopy supported by two little marble columns with vines twisting around them.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church building is on a classical basilical plan, rectangular overall with a central nave and side aisles having six bays. There follows a transept of three shallower bays, and then a small external semi-circular apse.
The roofs of nave and aisles are pitched and tiled. They contain dormer windows.
To the right of the church is the Carmelite convent, and on the far side of the building abutting the presbyterium is attached the tower campanile in brick rendered in white. This has two storeys above the roofline, the first being blank-walled and the second having a large arched sound-hole on each face. The imposts of the arches are continued as a string-course. On top there is a roofline entablature, and a tiled cap from which protrudes a little lead cupola having a parabolic curve.
FaçadeEditThe Renaissance façade is very simple, rendered in a faded dark pink with windows and doorcases in white marble. Unusually, there is no porch or loggia and this may be owing to the former existence of a now demolished narthex or entrance courtyard.
There are three entrances for nave and aisles; the fourth one on the extreme left leads into a courtyard. The main entrance is larger, flanked by a pair of grey granite Ionic columns supporting a raised triangular pediment over an inscription extolling Ludovico Cardinal de Torres. The smaller aisle entrances also have pairs of columns which look like grey marble, but unusually their doorcases are brought forward so that the columns appear as if tucked away on each side. The pediments here are segmental; the three pediments over the entrances are slightly oversized.
Over the main entrance is a large rectangular window with a raised oversized segmental pediment containing swags, this over a dedicatory inscription to the martyr. The aisle entrances are surmounted by square windows with Baroque frames and undersized triangular pediments. The nave roofline is dentillated, and there is a dentillated string course below the gable. This gives the impression of a pediment, into which the central window intrudes.
The nave has arcades of five rectangular piers on each side, with the piers decorated by applied Corinthian pilasters in shallow relief which run up to the entablature below the flat wooden coffered ceiling. The latter is unpainted, and shows the Torres coat of arms flanked by winged putto's heads. Its paintwork was ruined by rain getting in after the church roof was damaged in the 19th century.
The interior walls and piers are painted in a cream colour, including the stucco decoration. In the wide frieze of the entablature over each pilaster sits a pair of putti holding swags, and a pair of swags also embellish the archivolts of the aracade arches. There is a striking stucco coat of arms of Pope Paul V at the apex of the triumphal arch into the transept, with angels as supporters.
The mediaeval Cosmatesque floor of the nave was seriously damaged in the looting, and was unfortunately replaced in the restoration.
The aisles also have coffered wooden ceilings, and end in a pair of side chapels which occupy the ends of the transept.
The aisles have eight stucco relief panels by one P. Lehoux, depicting scenes from the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the life of St Pancras. These are surrounded by painted decoration resembling aedicules.
The sanctuary occupies the central part of the transept and the apse. The former has frescoes attributed to Antonio Tempesta on the side walls; to the left, St Pancras is depicted with St Calepodius and to the right he is with St Dionysius. These are over arcades leading into the side chapels, which have three Corinthian columns each.
The ceiling is painted with the Carmelite coat of arms, and the conch of the apse has a fresco by Luigi Ciotti of 1959 showing St Pancras with other saints. Even the parish website admits that this is not very good. The ancient bishop's throne that used to be in the apse has been lost.
The high altar has a 19th century baldacchino, supported by four ancient porphyry columns with gilded Corinthian capitals. These support an open square cornice, over which a canopy with four triangular pediments is supported by four corner piers and six little columns on each side.
The porphyry sarcophagus below the altar used to contain the lost relics. The original set of four columns was looted by the French in 1798, and were recovered after the restoration of papal government (there seems to be doubt concerning the authenticity of two of them).
The present relic of the saint, in a bust reliquary brought from the Lateran, is kept in an aumbry in the right hand nave aisle and is only moved to the altar for veneration on his feast-day of 12 May.
Losses to the FrenchEdit
Also looted by the French at the same time, and never recovered, was a pair of highly original and unusual ambos or pulpits in Cosmatesque work executed about 1250. A drawing of one of them is on the "Romeartlover" web-page, and shows what a tragic loss these were.
The French also stripped the interior of the polychrome marble work and mosaic which used to decorate it, in the process destroying another central altar which used to be in the nave below the triumphal arch. This had a baldacchino with four columns of porphyry as well, and two of them were fluted. Are they somewhere in France? The position of this altar can be discerned from fragments attached to one of the nave piers. On either side of this was a low screen wall in polychrome stonework and mosaic, including porphyry panels.
Like the relief panels in the aisles, the two side chapels are painted to give the impression of having altar aedicules. This is a sad attempt to make up for the genuine articles looted by the French.
The right hand side chapel is dedicated to the Crucifix, and has modern wall fresoes depicting scenes from the martyrdom of St Pancras
The semi-annular confessio or devotional crypt of Pope Honorius is below the altar. It runs in a semi-circle under the apse, with a passage leading to below the high altar, and contains some ancient marble slabs.
There are two sets of catacombs entered from the church, which are unusual because they were never lost but were visited through the Middle Ages. The first has its entrance in the left aisle, and is named after one Ottavilla who features in the legend of St Pancras. It has been inaccessible for years, although apparently if you are an archaeologist with a scholarly interest you may be able to get permission for a visit. Possibly.
The other set has its entrance between the third and fourth pillars of the right aisle, and are named after the saint. They are quite extensive, and contain important paintings and graffiti as well as many funerary niches. However, the dimensions of the passages are smaller than those of the more famous public catacombs. There are three important cubicula: one containing a tomb of someone called Botrys Christianos (literally meaning "Christian bunch of grapes"), one named after St Felix which has paintings of ships and fish and, most importantly, one with four tombs which was venerated in the Middle Ages as the shrine of SS Sophia, Fides, Spes and Caritas. These were meant to be martyrs, a mother and three daughters called Wisdom, Faith, Hope and Charity.
These catacombs are still described as being open to the public on occasion, but this is not true. At present they are described as being "closed for renovation", and the word is that they are not going to reopen any time soon.
Owing to its being some distance from the Centro Storico, this church now gets few pilgrims and fewer tourists. As a result, it is no longer open all day.
Weekdays 08:30 to 12:00, 16:30 to 19:00. From July to September the afternoon closure is at 19:30.
Sundays 8:00 to 13:00, 16:30 to 20:00.
The walk from Porta San Pancrazio is not a short one. The 44 bus from Piazza Venezia passes close by (get off at Ottavilla/Pamphilj).
Mass is celebrated:
Sundays 8:30, 10:30, 12:00, 17:30 (not July to 2nd Sunday in September), 19:00.
Weekdays 7:30 (not July to 2nd Sunday in September), 9:00, 18:00.